Practical Technology

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The Return of the Microsoft Media Connectors

Here we go again. After falling on its face the first time around with Media Extenders, Microsoft is ready to tackle the Apple TV with a new set of Windows Media Extenders.

This time around there are three companies offering extenders. These are Linksys with the Media Center Extender with DVD Player (DMA2200) that combines an upscaling DVD player with a dual-band Wireless-N Extender for Windows Media Center. Linksys will also offer the Media Center Extender (DMA2100), which doesn’t include a DBD player and has a smaller device footprint. These are scheduled to go on sale in the U.S. this November at estimated street prices of $349.99 and $299.99, respectively.

D-Link is also still playing in the game. This time its offering is the DSM-750 MediaLounge HD Media Center Extender. It comes in a 17-inch, black aluminum chassis, and connects to your home network using Ethernet or dual-band draft Wireless-N. D-Link claims that the DSM-750 can display HD videos with resolutions of up to 1080i. It will support WMV (Windows Media Video), DivX, and XVid formats. It will also include a USB 2.0 port for instant access to music, photos and videos stored on removable USB flash drives or hard drives. The suggested retail price for the device is $349.99.

For the high-end, there’s the Niveus Media Extender – EDGE. The company claims that it offers a high-fidelity experience, uncompromised 1080p video, digital audio and the same amazing 3-D user interface found on the award- winning Niveus Media Center. Additionally, the Niveus Media Extender features the proprietary Niveus Glacier Passive Cooling System for cool and quiet performance and a sleek and stylish audio/visual form factor. Outside of the hyperbole, it’s hard to know what this device offers that the others don’t. Like the other devices, the Niveus Media Extender – EDGE is expected to be available in early November. The company, however, has not announced its pricing although it seems a safe bet that it will be expensive than the others.

Microsoft claims that the Extenders for Windows Media Center will support streaming live high-definition TV, including premium cable channels in the United States, along with formats such as HD (high-definition) WMV. That’s a rather interesting claim since HD content will strangle any Internet connection south of cable or FiOS.

Oh and how will you get this HD content? You’ll get it over the net if you have Windows Vista Home Premium edition and Windows Vista Ultimate edition with a new Media Center feature: the beta release of Internet TV. This new feature, in theory, will allow people to enjoy a range of television and video content on their PCs and TV sets without a TV tuner in their PC. This streaming video content will be supported by an advertising platform provided by YuMe and will be available to viewers for free.

The content available in Internet TV comes from MSN Video, with more than 100 hours available at the start of the beta period. This includes a hodge-podge of content such as the TV show “Arrested Development;” concerts by artists such as Snoop Dogg, Elton John, Pink, John Mayer and the Pussycat Dolls; movie trailers; MSNBC news; and FOX Sports clips.

Have you noticed any cynicism in my tone? That’s because I’ve been down this road before with Microsoft. Remember Play Anywhere? Its history now and those Media Extenders are somewhere between being as dead as a dodo and being as dead as the ivory-billed woodpeckers. Mine are sitting in my store-room along with my 486 systems and my copy of MS-DOS 1.02.

On top of that, this platform relies on Vista. Insert the non-silence of dead silence here. I don’t trust Vista with a word-processor; I certainly don’t see if as being suitable for any kind of server use.

But, let’s set those issues aside. Let’s presume that Microsoft isn’t going to abandon this technology like say Windows Bob and that Vista can actually handle high-speed video streaming. The devices primarily rely on dual-band 802.11n for their connectivity to the PC. A small rub here is that we still don’t have a real 802.11n standard.

So, my recommendation is that if you do elect to give one of these devices a try, be sure that your Wi-Fi access point comes from the same company. If you don’t, well don’t be surprised if your 21st century broadband TV turns out to be more of a mid-50s black-and-white snow job.

The real nail in the coffin as far as I’m concerned though is none of these devices, not a one, has a built-in hard drive like the Apple TV. That, to me, is why I can’t see this new generation of Windows-powered media extenders working.

I don’t care how fast your connection is, and I’ve used 100Mbps Fast Ethernet, it’s not fast enough. If anything goes wrong with the media server and its connection to the extender–and it will–your movie will stop, start, stutter, and, at the worst of times, completely freeze-up.

The Apple TV may not be perfect, but at least you can count on it showing the show you want when you want to see it. Advantage: Apple.

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